Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez
Susan Sontag (1933-2004) era uma emproada. Porém, como todas as emproadas, tinha pessoas de quem gostava, com as quais não se comportava como tal. Uma destas foi a escritora Sigrid Nunez (n. 1951), que durante alguns anos (1976-1979 mais ou menos) foi sua secretária e namorada de seu filho David Rieff (n. 1952). Posição excelente para conhecer a celebridade e agora escrever um livro sobre ela. Mais tarde, Sigrid Nunez escreveu novelas com bastante sucesso. (Para compreender a história, é preciso acrescentar as datas, porque os americanos nunca as indicam.)
O sempre do título dizem que é do italiano, embora, claro, também seja português.
Susan Sontag é aqui posta a nu por quem percebe do assunto e escreve realmente bem. A escrita está cheia de humor, que não é negro, mas é de qualquer modo muito incisivo. O estilo é muito escorreito e o livrinho lê-se de um fôlego, ou, no máximo, dois: eu li-o em dois fins de tarde.
No final, Sontag fica reduzida à condição humana. Não foi um génio, foi uma mulher inteligente e extrovertida que viveu o melhor que pôde e deixou alguns ensaios interessantes e livros de ficção que não valem o esforço de os ler. Foi uma bissexual com vida agitada nesse campo e que lutou com muita coragem contra três cancros.
Como referiu um crítico, o mérito do livro é o de agradar simultaneamente aos apaniguados e aos críticos da personagem que tão bem descreve.
April 2, 2011
By Joseph Epstein
Susan Sontag, as F.R. Leavis said of the Sitwells, belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity. Anyone with the least intellectual pretension seemed to have heard of, if not actually read, her. Outside of the movies and politics, Sontag must have been one of the most photographed women of the second half of the past century. Tall and striking, with thickish black hair later showing a signature white streak at the front, she was the beautiful young woman every male graduate student regretted not having had a tumble with, a fantasy that would have been difficult to arrange since she was, with only an occasional lapse, a lesbian.
A single essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" published in Partisan Review in 1964, launched Susan Sontag's career, at the age of 31, and put her instantly on the Big Board of literary reputations. People speak of ideas whose time has not yet come; hers was a talent for promoting ideas that arrived precisely on time. "Notes on 'Camp,'" along with a companion essay called "Against Interpretation," vaunted style over content: "The idea of content," Ms. Sontag wrote, "is today merely a hindrance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism." She also held interpretation to be "the enemy of art." She argued that Camp, a style marked by extravagance, epicene in character, expressed a new sensibility that would "dethrone the serious." In its place she would put, with nearly equal standing, such cultural items as comic books, wretched movies, pornography watched ironically, and other trivia.
These essays arrived as the 1960s were about to come to their tumultuous fruition and provided an aesthetic justification for a retreat from the moral judgment of artistic works and an opening to hedonism, at least in aesthetic matters. "In place of a hermeneutics," Sontag's "Against Interpretation" ended, "we need an erotics of art." She also argued that the old division between highbrow and lowbrow culture was a waste not so much of time as of the prospects for enjoyment. Toward this end she lauded the movies—"cinema is the active, the most exciting, the most important of all the art forms right now"—as well as science fiction and popular music.
These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner. They read as if they were a translation, probably, if one had to guess, from the French. They would have been more impressive, of course, if their author were herself a first-class artist. This, Lord knows, Susan Sontag strained to be. She wrote experimental fiction that never came off; later in her career she wrote more traditional fiction, but it, too, arrived dead on the page.
The problem is that Sontag wasn't sufficiently interested in real-life details, the lifeblood of fiction, but only in ideas. She also wrote and directed films, which were not well-reviewed: I have not seen these myself, but there is time enough to do so, for I have long assumed that they are playing as a permanent double feature in the only movie theater in hell.
"Intelligence," Sontag wrote, "is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas." In her thrall to ideas she resembles the pure type of the intellectual. The difficulty, though, was in the quality of so many of her ideas, most of which cannot be too soon forgot. Her worst offenses in this line were in politics, where her specialty was extravagant utterance.
During the Vietnam War, Sontag went off to Hanoi as one of those people Lenin called "useful idiots"—that is, people who could be expected to defend Communism without any interest in investigating the brutality behind it. There she found the North Vietnamese people noble and gentle, if a touch boring and puritanical for her tastes. Doubtless that trip led to her most famous foolish remark, when she said that "the white race is the cancer of human history," later revising this judgment by noting that it was a slander on cancer. Hers was the standard leftist view on Israel, which was—natch—that it is a racist and imperialist country. All her political views were left-wing commonplace, noteworthy only because of her extreme statement of them.
Some might think Sontag's renunciation of communism an exception to this record of nearly perfect political foolishness. In a 1982 speech at New York's Town Hall, she announced that communism was no more than "fascism with a human face." The remark drove bien-pensants up the (still standing Berlin) wall. Others who had fallen for the dream of communism had got off the train as long as 50 years earlier. And whatever can Sontag have meant by "a human face" to describe a monstrous system of government that in Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Cambodia slaughtered scores of millions of people?
Rounding her political career off nicely, when the Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people murdered, Sontag, in the New Yorker, wrote that the attack was "on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions"—and so America, in other words, had it coming. "Some ideas are so stupid," Orwell said, "that only an intellectual could believe them," and Susan Sontag seems, at one time or another, to have believed them all.
Sontag was an aesthete and held that "the wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness." Some might argue, though, that she gave aestheticism a bad name and that hers fed nicely into her political foolishness. Apropos of Sontag, Hilton Kramer remarked: "Aestheticism is not, after all, primarily a philosophy of art. It is a philosophy of life." This woman who eschewed morality and judgment in art never had the least doubt about her own moral superiority and the righteousness of her views.
In literature Ms. Sontag's taste in ideas ran to the dark, the oblique and the violent. As Camille Paglia put it, she "made fetishes of depressive European writers." One is reminded here of the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, who, when young, felt a special partiality to writers who had committed suicide. Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Samuel Beckett, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti and Cioran himself were among the writers about whom Sontag wrote most enthusiastically.
Enthusiastically but not convincingly. Walter Benjamin, one of her enthusiasms, must surely be among the 20th century's most overrated writers. Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Karl Kraus—Benjamin could render the juiciest of subjects arid. In her essay on Elias Canetti, Sontag notes his admiration for the novelist Hermann Broch and "those great patient novels 'The Death of Virgil' and 'The Sleepwalkers.' " Anyone who has read Broch's books will know that the burden of patience chiefly falls on the reader, for Broch's heavily longueur-laden novels are proof yet again of Santayana's discovery that the Germans are utterly devoid of the emotion of boredom.
In the end, Susan Sontag may have been most notable as a photographic subject and for the querulous interview, of which she gave a bookful (see "Conversations With Susan Sontag.") She was photographed by the best in the business, in poses sexy, earnest, sultry, brainy and sublimely detached. She did the siren in a thousand faces. Her last partner, Annie Leibovitz, is, appropriately, best known as a celebrity photographer. Sontag's obituary in the New York Times was accompanied by no fewer than four photographs—an instance of intellectual cheesecake.
If Susan Sontag had been a less striking woman when younger, her ideas would not have had the reach that they did. Something similar could be said about Mary McCarthy, another attractive writer, who claimed that Sontag was "the imitation me." Today, more than six years after Sontag's death, not her writing—as a prose stylist she gave no pleasure—but only the phenomenon of Susan Sontag is of interest.
This interest is nicely fed by "Sempre Susan," a brief memoir by the novelist Sigrid Nunez, who, at the age of 25, became Susan Sontag's secretary and her son David Rieff's lover. The year was 1976. Sontag was then 42. Such was Sontag's fame that she was in the condition of Herbert von Karajan, who, when asked by a Parisian cab driver where he wished to go, replied: "It doesn't matter. They want me everywhere." Ms. Nunez, in fact, was hired to help with Sontag's overflowing correspondence.
"Sempre Susan" records their relationship over the next three decades and displays Susan Sontag in all her neediness and vulnerability—she suffered three bouts of cancer, dying from the third, leukemia—but even more emphatically in all her distance from reality. Her domestic style was bohemian, with the temperament of a diva added. She claimed not to be egocentric, but self-centered she certainly was. Her thoughts all seemed to be about herself.
Ms. Nunez fills us in on Susan Sontag's love affairs, mostly with women but also with Joseph Brodsky, who let her down, hard. Yet how could she refuse a great Russian writer, a future Nobel Prize winner, even if he felt that poetry, which he wrote, was the air force and prose, which she wrote, was the infantry?
This little memoir is perhaps most interesting on Susan Sontag's relationship with her son. Disliking her own childhood, she determined that her son would take a pass on his, and she treated him, from an early age, as if he were grown-up. She left him for long stretches with other people when he was young, while she traveled abroad. She appears to have regarded him more as a younger brother than a son. An Israeli writer named Yoram Kaniuk, who knew them well, claimed that "she was not a mother, and he was not a son."
Sigrid Nunez and David soon become a couple, in an arrangement brought about by Sontag: "He was shy," Ms. Nunez writes. "She was not." When Sontag learned that Ms. Nunez was not using any birth-control pills, she worried that the two might have a child, which, she felt, would be a terrible drag on her son's career. Her advice to the couple was to desist from fornication and instead practice—I revert to the French to protect the innocent—soixante-neuf. Ms. Nunez doesn't mention either her own or David's reaction to this maternal advice, but let us rest assured that neither replied, "Golly, Mom, thanks."
Although Sigrid Nunez appreciates Susan Sontag's curiosity, wide reading, courage in the face of bad health, and independence, her unreality, her deep and abiding unreality, is the final impression that "Sempre Susan" leaves on the reader. Sontag didn't mind whose feelings she hurt. Her trips to give talks at universities are strewn with stories of her disregard of her audience and astonishing impudence. No one was allowed to get in the way of her desires or disrupt her sense of her own high seriousness.
At the end of "Sempre Susan," Ms. Nunez presents a woman who is filled with regrets, not about her treatment of others but about her own achievement. Still confident of her "worthy contribution to culture and society," she nonetheless wishes that she had been "more artist and less critic, more author and less activist. . . . No, she was not happy with her life's work. . . . True greatness had eluded her." Deluded to the end, Susan Sontag had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her real métier.
Mr. Epstein's "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit" will be published later this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
May 8, 2011
By Regina Marler
A Memoir of Susan Sontag
Atlas & Co.: 140 pp.,
When novelist Sigrid Nunez accepted a
part-time job helping Susan Sontag cope with correspondence that had built up
during her first bout with cancer, she thought that she'd found exactly the job
she needed: one that would not interfere with her own writing. She didn't
realize she would also find a mentor, a friend and an antagonist in Sontag, and
that 30 years later she would still be organizing her bookshelves and watching
movies in the way that Susan — for she was always "Susan," as the title suggests
— thought best.
Any memoir of another person is a delicate undertaking. Especially so when you are writing about your ex-boyfriend's mother. Not long after Nunez arrived at Sontag's book-filled but otherwise spartan penthouse on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, she began dating Sontag's son, David Rieff, who lived there part time. Soon Nunez would move in as well, a third wheel to a mother-son relationship so intense that literary New York speculated about its nature. She recalls Sontag saying that, because their relationship was so difficult, David and she had "always needed to have a third person around.'"
"She didn't like the word 'girlfriend' much; she preferred 'friend,' though she sometimes referred to me jovially as David's 'consort,'" Nunez writes. "She referred to the three of us as the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive. I knew that wasn't good."
Although Rieff has stressed that he is "not a confessional person" and has no intention of writing about his relationship with his mother — or, one assumes, the strange triangle they formed with Nunez in the late 1970s — "Sempre Susan" does offer an interesting counterpart to his sad and beautiful 2008 memoir of Sontag's last months before her death in 2004, "Swimming in a Sea of Death." Both seem honest, balanced and somewhat reluctant records; it is hard to read Nunez's painstaking account of the Trouble on Riverside Drive without wondering whether Rieff read it in manuscript and what he thought of its more confessional nature. Together, the memoirs give a sense of what it may have been like to know Sontag — her vitality, her endearing enthusiasms, her neediness and insecurities. "In spite of all her passions, her huge appetite for beauty and pleasure, her famous avidity, and the unflagging pace of her enviably rich life," Nunez writes, "she was mortally malcontented, and … a sense of failure clung to her like widow's weeds."
Anyone looking for lurid revelations will be disappointed, but I was taken aback to learn that Sontag often revised her writing with the help of a friend, someone who would even move in for a while, sleeping a few hours a night, like Sontag, and helping her comb endlessly through her drafts. She hated to be alone. I found this more shocking than the news that she took speed during these marathon revision sessions, which just makes me want to take speed myself.
Although Nunez's relationship with Sontag and Rieff unraveled badly, "Sempre Susan" is a loving memoir, full of arresting details and an occasional spirited defense of her mentor. For a New York Times profile on the publication of her novel "The Volcano Lover," Sontag remarked that all her work says, "be serious, be passionate, wake up." Clearly someone was listening.
Marler is the editor of "Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex."
An insider’s view of Susan Sontag, the public and private personas
By Alice Gregory
April 2, 2011
SEMPRE SUSAN: A Memoir of Susan Sontag By Sigrid Nunez
Atlas. 140 pages $20
The literature that discloses the private lives of public intellectuals is a category of erotica in itself. For a certain sort of person, nothing is more titillating. Deciphering a persona, anecdote-by-anecdote, to reveal the person behind it is can be a vexed enterprise, since risking their dignity is almost always an occupational hazard. But Sigrid Nunez performs the task elegantly in “Sempre Susan,’’ in which she chronicles the years she spent living with Susan Sontag, who was both her mentor and her boyfriend’s mother.
When they first meet, it’s under the auspices of business. Nunez is just out of college and working as an assistant at The New York Review of Books; Sontag is convalescing from the cancer that would inspire “Illness as Metaphor’’ and living with her son, David Rieff, who is still in college. She hires Nunez on as a typist, and soon enough, they’re all roommates.
Nunez quietly gets out of the way in this thin volume. Her own writing style is mostly invisible, which is as it should be. We want Sontag’s eccentricities neat — not shaken or stirred by those who witnessed them.
Nunez doesn’t moon; her appraisal is fair. Sontag comes off as Great, but flawed. Through Nunez, we get a first-hand account of Sontag’s mercurial affection, delusions of precocity, constant need for company, and fetish for the obscenely wealthy. “And there were times,’’ writes Nunez, “when her obsessive curiosity, which she herself considered her biggest virtue, seemed closer to voyeurism: not a virtue.’’ Like those perpetual visitors always shocked to see such a celebrated writer living “like a grad student,’’ Nunez herself was often surprised at Sontag’s insecurity, recalling that “in spite of her undeniable achievements, all the hard-won honors and well-deserved acclaim, a sense of failure clung to her like widow’s weeds.’’
A paragon of brainy glamour, Sontag’s sartorial sense — jeans, loose-fitting shirts, Dior Homme cologne — is made out to be an expression of mental life, and so much more stylish because of it. Sontag’s strict rules for living are some of the most entertaining parts of the book to read. “Susan hated childish language of any kind,’’ Nunez remembers, “and always boasted that she had never spoken baby talk with her son when he was little.’’ She was “suspicious of women with menstrual complaints’’ and had a strong distaste for cliched language. “Describing an evening as sultry, she told me, was as bad as describing someone as having distinguished grey hair.’’
Nunez is fastidious about labeling Sontag an elitist but not a snob and spends many pages delineating the difference. Interspersed within the book is an index of Sontag’s famously derisive diction. “ ‘Don’t be so servile,’ ’’ she would tell Nunez, urging her to be fashionably late to events. “ ‘It’s always good to start off anything by breaking a rule.’ ’’
“Exemplary’’ was also “one of her words,’’ as were “grotesque,’’ “boring,’’ and “besotted.’’
A premature introduction to Susan Sontag is a dangerous thing. How many 18-year-olds have read “Against Interpretation’’ and taken from it permission to write ruthless polemics that they aren’t quite ready to defend? Sontag is often the gateway drug to intellectual life, lionized by students hell-bent on muscling out a critical worldview. And for good reason. Her essays on art and politics are some of the fiercest and most influential of 20th century letters. “Sempre Susan’’ summons those sophomoric yearnings while also giving us a fair and openhearted portrait.
Nunez has constructed a eulogy that mythologizes and humanizes one of the most intimidating figures of contemporary culture.
Alice Gregory is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in New York, The Poetry Foundation, NPR.org, and The New York Observer, among other publications.
San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, April 2, 2011
A Memoir of Susan Sontag
By Sigrid Nunez
Atlas & Co.; 140 pages
Was Susan Sontag a monster? Posthumous accounts make her sound like one. Terry Castle (in "The Professor") and Edmund White (in "City Boy") gnaw away at her with the sourness of discarded friends. In "Swimming in a Sea of Death," her son, David Rieff, recalls the tyrannical will with which, during her gruesome final months, she browbeat her loved ones into pretending she wasn't dying.
Sigrid Nunez's brief and riveting "Sempre Susan" stands out among these memoirs for its lack of bitterness. Nunez was 25 when she moved in with Rieff, in 1976. Not only had Sontag set them up; mother and son were roommates in a splendid, if underdecorated, Manhattan penthouse that now became a three-way share. There was no question of anybody's moving out. "Don't be so conventional," Sontag admonished the young woman. "Who says we have to live like everyone else?"
Exceptionalism: Nunez italicizes the word early on, enumerating the ways Sontag gloried in the privilege of her specialness. Some were foibles. She "found the idea of borrowing a book from the library instead of buying her own copy humiliating. Taking public transportation instead of a cab was deeply humiliating."
Others were closer to crimes. She relished ripping her friends apart, and "it was when there was an audience that she was likely to really go to town." As for strangers, "all a clerk or a waiter had to do was be less than alacritous to serve her, or make a careless mistake," and out came the heavy artillery: "Her goal then was not just to express her displeasure but to humiliate that person." One coffee shop she used to frequent finally banished her.
Nunez shares the general estimate of Sontag's essays as masterly and her fiction as bad, but beyond that she marvels at the woman's irresistible will. Sontag "believed that a large part of how other people treated you was within your own control. If she kept acting like she was first and foremost a fiction writer, people would start to treat her that way." And damned if they didn't - I can't think of any other explanation for the National Book Award her wretched novel "In America" took home in 2000.
Yet, although Nunez keeps coming back to the word "monster," her admiration remains. "I considered meeting her one of the luckiest strokes of my life," she writes, and not just for the access it gave her to the literati and glitterati of Sontag's glamorous crowd: "I am grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer's vocation." Not that she didn't also see its ridiculous side. "Once, when she was struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren't being supportive enough, she said, 'If you won't do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.' "
And therein lies the paradox of this exacting and troubling writer, at once ludicrous and sublime, an imperious know-it-all and a secular saint. Self-seriousness can delude - it can turn a writer into a monster - but it can also lay the foundation for magnificent work.
Nunez eventually got sick of living with a boyfriend's mother who didn't know when to back off. ("She simply could not bear to be alone.") The reader, on the other hand, may brighten up at the image of Sontag as a pushy, tone-deaf Jewish mother. Nunez is at pains to defend her against the charges of humorlessness that have been leveled against her by so many critics (including me), offering this priceless description of Sontag telling her favorite Jewish joke: "The punch line required that Susan ... clutch her head between her hands and, with an expression of stark fear, scream, 'Aaahh! Kreplaaaaach!' " I believe her when she says it's one of the funniest things she's ever seen.
Still, those memories don't raise the temperature of Sontag's ice-cold prose - or affect my admiration of it. (In fact, I think I like it better than Nunez does.) They do, however, complicate our picture of Sontag as a human being. Nunez digs deep into Sontag's pain, into the extravagance of her self-pity, her unshakable loneliness and her feelings of - strangely enough - failure. "No, she was not happy with her life's work." The Nobel would not be hers. A monster, yes, but a touching one, and a highly entertaining one ... from a distance.
"Looking back," Nunez writes, "I only wish that I could feel more joy - or, at least, that I could find a way of remembering that is not so painful." For the reader, if not for herself, she has.
Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me" (Counterpoint, 2004) and a critic for Bloomberg News.
April 1, 2011
Susan Sontag failed to create the great novels that she thought it was in her to produce. And yet on certain subjects -- such as photography and cancer -- she is quotable and debatable.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004), Sigrid Nunez admits, is an acquired taste. She did not write beautiful sentences, and she failed to create the great novels that she thought it was in her to produce. And yet on certain subjects -- such as photography and cancer -- she is quotable and debatable. A controversial writer, she loved to start arguments. She got into trouble with leftists when she called communism "fascism with a human face" and offended photographers when she doubted photography was an art.
Nunez, unfortunately, does little to coordinate the person with her prose. Nothing wrong with dwelling on the intimate details of Sontag's life -- she is a fascinating subject -- but to what end? Nunez claims that she does not understand why Sontag got such a reputation as a humorless person, and then spends pages showing just how humorless Sontag could be. So she laughed at other people's jokes -- that hardly seems like much of a revisionist interpretation.
Nunez really gets going, though, near the end of the book when she probes Sontag's trouble: For all her fame, Sontag saw herself as a failure. Hence her rages as she projected her frustration on others. Nunez does not claim to explain Sontag, but she does offer insights on how it all went terribly wrong for a writer who began with such promise.
By James Camp
March 22, 2011 | 7:16 p.m
In 1978, when People wanted to interview Susan Sontag, the writer wondered aloud how Samuel Beckett might respond given the same opportunity. It was not unusual for her to invoke Beckett in this way. "When she worried she was making too many compromises," Sigrid Nunez recalls in Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas, 140 pages, $30), "she would say, 'Beckett wouldn't do it,'" There could be little doubt that Beckett ("Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness") would have skipped the interview with People. But in 1978, Sontag went ahead and did it anyway. The mantra of her resolve to rise above it all—Beckett wouldn't do it—could equally express a sinking feeling of self-dissatisfaction. Beckett wouldn't do it, but Sontag had.
With the exceptions of T.S. Eliot and Henry James, no American writer has been more famed for her Europeanness than Susan Sontag, and very few indeed could have led lives as persevering in their contradictions. "She was like Woolf's Mr. Ramsay," as Ms. Nunez sums it up, "stuck at Q, dreaming of Z." A dedicated writer, Sontag "simply could not bear to be alone." An avowed feminist, "she found most women wanting." Sontag had disliked her childhood with a bizarre, bad-tempered intensity, and yet "people close to her often compared her to a child." "She was a natural mentor ... who hated teaching," Ms. Nunez writes, but by this point the pattern is so familiar readers can reproduce it on their own. Had Sontag been born with an innate genius for the drums, she would have become the hardest-working second violinist of all time.
"In general," writes Ms. Nunez, "she had contempt for people who didn't do what they truly wanted to do." Sontag truly wanted to write novels, but she is mostly remembered, with reason, as an essayist. In one of the most celebrated of her essays, it seems now, she may have unknowingly glimpsed herself: "In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails." As she discussed the Bee Gees with People, she thought only of Beckett. There was something undeniably a little camp about Susan Sontag.
Ms. Nunez writes beautifully, but if her memoir offers the most revealing portrait of Sontag yet, it may partly be because she has sketched it from an odd angle. Or rather, several odd angles. For Ms. Nunez, Sontag was a boss, a mentor and a friend; also an antagonist, a roommate and a prospective in-law. They first met when Sontag hired Ms. Nunez as an assistant in 1976. Only 43 years old, Sontag had been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer the year before. It had nearly killed her, and the rigors of survival had maimed her body and disarrayed her life, leaving her with an accumulation of unanswered letters that she did not have the stamina, as she recovered, to cope with on her own. Ms. Nunez, a young writer, was brought in to help her cope. She had already worked at The New York Review of Books, and its editors, sensible of Sontag's needs, had suggested the arrangement. Of its draws, not least was the proximity of Ms. Nunez's apartment to Sontag's penthouse on Riverside Drive, where "the work" was done—and where Sontag's son, David Rieff, then a student at Princeton, still lived. "It was exactly the kind of odd job I was looking for then," Ms. Nunez recalls, "the kind unlikely to interfere with my writing."
About this Ms. Nunez was wrong. The mail seems largely to have been ignored as the two writers gossiped their way to a fast friendship. Ms. Nunez was shy at 25, and Sontag's charismatic frank attention must have been intoxicating. "I remember thinking as I walked home how laid-back and open she'd been—much more like someone my own age than someone of my mother's generation." Within weeks, and with no small meddling on Sontag's part, Ms. Nunez was dating Mr. Rieff, whereupon the three, in a decision whose precise rationale the reader would be fascinated to learn but doesn't, moved in together. "She referred to us as the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside drive. I knew that wasn't a good sign." Proximity was a draw, but a coupledom of three would have its drawbacks. Soon Ms. Nunez had quit working for Sontag and returned to the NYRB. But she continued to see Mr. Rieff, and would not move out until 1977.
Sempre Susan recounts the saga of this ménage and of its author's friendship with Sontag, which would hang on, with waning intensity, until Sontag's death, in 2004. It is also a requiem for Ms. Nunez's love affair with Mr. Rieff, which ended much earlier, in the winter of 1978, when they had "one last fight." Ms. Nunez graciously claims that "Susan could have lived on the moon and David and I would not have worked out," but to read the book is to awaken to the pain of uncertainty this sentence stoically denies. The romance Sontag had bearishly encouraged she would frustrate like an ogre. She was restless, she was lonely, she was insecure, and her tactlessness could be staggering. At lunch one afternoon with Mr. Rieff, Ms. Nunez and a fourth, Sontag advised the couple freely: "Why don't you two just sixty-nine? Then you won't have to worry about birth control."
But Ms. Nunez is alive to much more in Sontag's character than the flaws. She honors with new evidence traits we have long ascribed to Sontag, like her vivacity and gift for friendship, as well as a few traits we are accustomed to denying her, like a sense of humor. Indeed, Ms. Nunez is so careful of her subject that she has not divided her story into sections or chapters—the fear being, perhaps, that Sontag cuts too protean a figure to be rendered by conventional means. The unconventional result is that her prose is left to follow the eddying currents of the author's memory.
In different hands, this could conceivably be the recipe for chaotic failure, but here the effect is economy, a brisk freedom to note what matters and nothing more. Also, urgency. The flitting from fragment to fragment has a whiff of desperation about it, as if the author were laboring under pressures she could not quite withstand, but this is only fitting. Among the pressures, after all, is death. As well as a memoir, Ms. Nunez's book is an elegy for a great woman and the company she kept, the vanished salon where she was the center. "Most of the people in this memoir," Ms. Nunez notes, "are dead."
Among the dead is Joseph Brodsky. Sontag briefly dated Brodsky during the first months of Ms. Nunez's relationship with Mr. Rieff, and the poet features in many of the book's most diverting sequences. A ribald, talkative presence, prone to off-color punning (Puerto Rico was "Muerto Rico," and the "young women of Mount Holyoke, where [Brodsky] taught, were 'Mounties'"), Brodsky could outdo Sontag both in heedless self-absorption and European-style imperturbability—though of course Brodsky, a Russian, was hardly more European than his paramour. Late in the book, Ms. Nunez reflects on something he had said over dinner: "You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing." "Now, that's European," Ms. Nunez concludes.
Sontag adored Brodsky and all that he embodied. Still, not everyone can accept so phlegmatically that their lives are as ripples on the water. Ms. Nunez recalls what Sontag used to say when, deep in her writing, she felt Mr. Rieff and Ms. Nunez had been neglecting her: "If you won't do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture."
April 15, 2011
A Memoir of Susan Sontag
By Sigrid Nunez
140 pp. Atlas & Co.
It’s not easy to pick the most unforgettable image from the many that flutter through this memoir like snippets from an overturned wastebasket. Susan Sontag eating a whole package of bacon and calling it dinner? Susan Sontag, passionate friend of the revolution, berating any clerk or waiter who didn’t treat her with proper deference? Susan Sontag perched on a sofa in her son’s room late at night, smoking and soliloquizing about her evening out, while he and his girlfriend lie silently in bed? Truly an embarrassment of riches, emphasis on the embarrassment, but here’s a personal favorite: Susan Sontag choosing to entertain guests in the kitchen.
Many women, of course, entertain guests in the kitchen, but there isn’t much evidence that Sontag enjoyed basking in the sweet associations that make the kitchen the heart of the home. Apparently, she did think of herself as a wonderful mother, and perhaps she was, though as Sigrid Nunez points out, it’s a rare mom who fondly remembers making her 10-year-old stand at her side and light cigarettes so she can chain-smoke while she’s madly typing a final draft. Nunez herself was given a bowl of canned mushroom soup on her first visit, but she reports little else in the way of traditional hospitality. Sontag appears to have nestled in the kitchen simply because she was comfortable with the decor, notably a hulking, broken freezer and streams of roaches.
Nunez, the author of half a dozen well-reviewed novels including, most recently, “Salvation City,” describes Sontag as a mentor, a friend and an inspiration. I guess you had to have been there. In 1976, she was a newly hatched M.F.A. trying to write fiction when she took a job helping Sontag with her mail. Sontag was living in a big penthouse apartment at 106th Street and Riverside Drive with her son, David Rieff, a 24-year-old college dropout who had returned to school as a Princeton sophomore but was spending most of his time in New York. Soon Nunez began going out with David, and a few months later she moved in. (A note about the apartment: nobody ever stepped onto the terrace, because the dog used it as an outhouse.) The arrangement lasted only a year or so, and Nunez says she wasn’t keeping a journal at the time; but 35 years later she has assembled all the tidbits she can remember and given them an Italian title meaning “Always Susan.” She’s evoking the fact that people always addressed Sontag by her first name, but why this reference requires Italian for maximum resonance is never explained.
Very little is explained in this short, baffling book. Much of it reads as though Nunez had jotted down her thoughts on notecards and simply transferred them to the page in no particular order. Sontag once advised Nunez to try to write more elliptically, which may account for the lack of transitions; but it’s impossible not to keep scribbling “huh?” in the margins. In one remarkable sequence, Nunez says first that Sontag carried a lifelong wound from her mother’s persistent neglect and selfishness. Then she says that Sontag had an asthma attack at age 5, after which her family moved from New York to Tucson for her health. Then she says that as a child, Susan drank a glass of blood every day, which her mother brought home from the butcher’s. I like an elliptical style as well as the next hard-core modernist, but surely a touch of elaboration would not have been overly Victorian here.
Most mysterious of all is Nunez’s own attitude toward Sontag. We’ve seen outright revenge memoirs (like Joyce Maynard on J. D. Salinger), but this is something else: revenge laced with worship. Nunez is so unremitting on Sontag’s appalling traits that we can’t understand why she admires her and misses her so much. The elegiac tone, the nostalgia — they don’t seem to be merited by anything we’re reading. It reminds me of Lillian Ross in “Here But Not Here,” going on and on about the nobility of William Shawn’s suffering throughout their long extramarital life together, because the poor soul couldn’t bring himself to divorce his wife.
Not until I discovered Terry Castle’s essay “Desperately Seeking Susan” did Nunez’s book start to make sense. Castle was teaching at Stanford when she met Sontag, whom she had long worshiped as a writer and feminist; and they were friends, more or less, for a decade. The essay (in Castle’s recent collection, “The Professor”) zings right to the heart of a relationship built on the mutual neediness of the worshiper and the worshiped, in part because she’s able to step back and recognize the inanity. “Desperately Seeking Susan” is hilarious — her description of Sontag re-enacting on a Palo Alto street how she dodged sniper fire in Sarajevo could have come straight from Thurber. At the same time, a credible part of Castle’s psyche still idolizes the glorious braininess of Sontag’s feminism back in the ’70s. “She was our very own Great Man,” she writes — a perspective that sums up Sontag’s role in Nunez’s growing up better than Nunez does herself.
Full disclosure: I met Sontag once myself in the ’70s, interviewing her while she was on a book tour, and came away bewitched. She was the smartest woman in the world! Just as Castle suggests, if you were a would-be intellectual feminist in those days, you had to idolize Sontag; it was the cost of doing business. But you didn’t have to sign on for years of fealty the way she and Nunez did. In my case, I switched to Barbara Pym — who spent her life among high-minded narcissists and learned to skewer them so deftly they barely noticed — and I’ve never been sorry.
Laura Shapiro’s most recent book is “Julia Child.”
the PARIS REVIEW
April 4, 2011
Sigrid Nunez on Susan Sontag
by Thessaly la Force
Read this article, here
A NEW READ
ON JEWISH LIFE
April 7, 2011
Sigrid Nunez’s memoir of Susan Sontag in the 1970s shows the polarizing thinker in a rarely seen light—as mentor, hero, and muse
By Rachel Shteir
Two things you will not find in Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez’s slim, elegant memoir of Susan Sontag in the 1970s:
-a predictable rehashing of the notorious writer’s political gaffes and personal foibles—her apparent insensitivity to the American victims of 9/11 and her refusal to talk openly about her sexual identity (she was gay) being two of the best-known, and
-dish about Nunez’s two-year affair with Sontag’s son, David Rieff, the book’s ostensible raison d’etre.
Sempre Susan presents something else altogether, something I think the 20th century’s most famous and prolific female intellectual herself might have appreciated: a lament for not just a person but a lost era; an elegy for the woman whose “influence on how I write and think,” as Nunez puts it, “was profound.”
On the surface, the story the book tells is deceptively simple: In 1976, Nunez, then a 25-year-old aspiring writer, arrives at Sontag’s Manhattan apartment to work as her assistant. (Sontag by then had already written four well-received books: Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, and two novels.)
Nunez begins dating Rieff, falls in love with him, and moves in. Two years later, she moves out. She and Sontag remain friends, albeit uneasily.
But beneath Nunez’s discreet girl-meets-boy story lies a revisionist, even radical, achievement: the most sympathetic portrait of Sontag to date. In considering Sontag through the story of her own coming of age as a writer—Nunez is now an accomplished novelist—she recasts a villain as a role model, hero, and muse. Sontag, Nunez writes, took reading and writing seriously and, in so doing, gave Nunez “permission” to do the same. Sontag’s seriousness, one of the things that so many others mocked her for, served here as inspiration.
This is not to say that Sempre Susan makes the Sontag whose critics have variously described her as an elitist, a hypocrite, a traitor, and a Leninist, disappear. The sleight of hand here is that Nunez presents her subject as a woman who is those things and a touching, human figure. “One of her … first thoughts when she’d been told she had cancer,” Nunez recalls, “was ‘Did I not have enough sex?’ ”
Some readers are no doubt going to feel that Sempre Susan protests too much, that Nunez has an answer for every one of Sontag’s offenses. Sontag’s legendary lack of humor? She “laughed easily” and one of her stories is in The New Yorker humor anthology Fierce Pajamas; Sontag’s insistence that she was primarily an artist, not a critic? Her novel The Volcano Lover was a best-seller, and her In America won the National Book Award. Her well-known hatred of teaching and the academy? She was a perennial student. Besides, Nunez suggests, there’s a lot to hate.
I found many of Nunez’s explanations convincing, perhaps most of all her retort to those who accused Sontag of elitism. “She was not a class snob,” Nunez writes. “She was the kind of person who noticed that the uneducated young woman who cleaned her house for a time ‘had beautiful, naturally aristocratic manners.’ On the other hand, she never pretended that a person’s success did not depend . . . on being connected.”
Even more striking, though, is Nunez’s sympathetic treatment of how gender warped Sontag’s work and life. For Nunez, Sontag’s not being a man left her vulnerable to public ridicule—and perhaps even made her into the tantrum-thrower she was. “Was it because she was a woman that people felt they could address her like this,” Nunez asks after yet another audience member has viciously harangued her.
Nunez describes Sontag’s many efforts to keep up with the boys; she never carried a purse, for example, and ridiculed Nunez for putting Tampax in hers. Back then, it seems, playing a man in drag was the only thing a woman in the all-male world of the New York Jewish intellectuals could do.
Still, Nunez is too shrewd an observer to blame gender politics (or any other kind) entirely for her idol’s bad behavior and vicious takedowns. As she puts it, turning a literal fact from Sontag’s childhood bout with anemia into a metaphor, whenever the writer would indulge in a tantrum, “I’d flash on the image of her as a girl drinking those glasses of blood.”
If Nunez teases out Sontag’s gender bending, she seems less interested in the writer’s equally complex relationship to her Jewishness. Born and raised a secular Jew in California and Arizona, Sontag supposedly never went to synagogue until she was in her 20s. She lacked interest in Philip Roth’s novels, but she described herself as “a wandering Jew” and early on wrote sentences like, “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.” Her obsession with ideas approaches the Talmudic, and yet, writing about the Vietnamese, she expressed distaste for “Jews’ more wasteful and more brilliant style.” Two famous projects from 1974, Promised Lands, her film about the Yom Kippur War, and “Fascinating Fascism,” an essay on Leni Riefenstahl, reflect obliquely upon her identity but never confront it.
Sempre Susan limits itself to quoting Sontag as understanding Jews as “people who liked to touch and be touched, and who were voluble and confessional.” And funny. Her favorite joke, Nunez explains, was a Jewish one, which Sontag told with a Yiddish accent. “ ‘A mother. A neurotic child. Doctor, Doctor, vot should I do? Every time my little boy sees kreplach, he starts to scream.’ The punch line required that Susan, as the mother, clutch her head between her hands, and with an expression of stark fear, scream, “Aaahh! Kreplaaaaach!”
These snapshots make Sontag seem more like a caricature and less like the complex woman that Nunez has given us elsewhere.
This more-nuanced Sontag conjures a Hopper painting as she slips into her son’s bedroom to talk as Rieff and Nunez fall asleep on the futon—or something more sinister still in a scene where she’s trying to finish a book and her then 10-year-old son stands by, lighting her cigarette.
Nunez’s point is that her mentor, however flawed, taught her about life and art. On the final page, she recounts her indifference upon first seeing the luminous film Tokyo Story. Sontag’s response: Someday, you’ll get it.
Nunez reports: “Actually, it didn’t take years and I didn’t have to see the movie again.” Nunez quotes one character, Yoko, asking, “Isn’t life disappointing?” A second, Noriko, replies: “Yes, it is.”
Sontag, according to Nunez, unlike most everything else, rarely disappointed.
Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.
THE NEW YORK TIMES STYLE MAGAZINE
When the author shacked up with Susan Sontag’s son, and his brainy mom, in 1976, three was not company.
I first met Susan Sontag in spring, 1976, when she was recovering from cancer surgery and needed someone to help type her correspondence. I had been recommended by the editors of The New York Review of Books, where I’d worked as an editorial assistant. I had recently finished graduate school at Columbia and was living on West 106th Street, not far from Susan’s apartment at 340 Riverside Drive.
We worked in her bedroom, I at her desk, typing on her massive I.B.M. Selectric while she dictated, either pacing the room or lying on her bed. I remember being surprised at how laid-back and chatty she was, much more like someone my own age than someone of my mother’s generation. But she was always this way with young people, and I would discover there wasn’t the usual generational distance between her and her son, either. A year younger than I, David, who’d dropped out of Amherst, had recently returned to school and was now a sophomore at Princeton. He had a place to stay in Princeton, but most of the week he lived with his mother. His (soon to be our) bedroom was right next to hers.
I’m pretty sure it was the third time I went to “340” that I first met David. I was leaving just as he was coming home, and Susan briefly introduced us. I was surprised when, a day or so later, she called to ask me to come back — not the following week, as we’d planned, but rather that same afternoon. I said yes, of course, no problem. She’d sounded urgent. I didn’t want to let her down. But the truth was, I was in bad shape. I had just discovered that my boyfriend, with whom I’d been living for about two years, had started seeing someone else. At the time, both he and the new girlfriend were working at The New York Review, where the affair was an open secret. I didn’t want Susan to hear about it. What I didn’t know was that she’d already heard about it. That was why she’d called.
It turned out that the last time I’d been to 340, after Susan had introduced David and me and I had gone home, he had asked her if I had a boyfriend and she’d told him yes. But then almost immediately she heard from one of her friends at the Review that that relationship was probably over. She encouraged David to call me. He was shy. She was not. Instead of working that day, she took us out for a pizza.
My boyfriend and I broke up, and I rented a room in the apartment of a couple of students nearby. My plan was to stay there just for the summer and then find a place of my own. Meanwhile, David and I started dating. He was almost shockingly smart — at times he could seem even smarter than Susan — but, even more appealing, he was relentlessly, brilliantly funny. Like me, he wanted to be a writer. That summer, during most of which Susan was away in Paris, David and I spent more and more time together. By September, I had moved in with him.
At that time, partly because of her highly regarded and popular series of essays on photography, and partly because of her outspokenness about having cancer, Susan was riding a second wave of celebrity (the first, of course, having crested in the ’60s, with the appearance of her first critical essays, most famously “Notes on ‘Camp’ ”). The phone rang all day long, and Susan had no desire to get an answering machine or service. I had heard before I ever saw it that Susan’s apartment was a famous crash pad. While I lived at 340, there was often someone sleeping in the living room, and there was a steady stream of visitors. Susan loved to go out, but she also loved to have people, including those she was meeting for the first time, come to her. It seemed to me I was forever opening the door to some stranger, or coming home to find someone waiting for her (sometimes for up to an hour) in the kitchen, where, though it was the smallest room in the house, she tended to receive guests.
David, of course, was used to his mother’s busy, people-filled life. As she liked to say, he had grown up “on coats,” meaning she had dragged him along to the many parties and “happenings” and other events she had not wanted to miss just because she had a young child. (She would also take him to the movies and let him sleep in his seat while she watched a double feature.) In fact, though he had a much stronger sense of privacy than Susan did, like her he grew bored and restless when things were too quiet. Both he and she disapproved of the monkish streak in me; in their eyes it showed a certain lack of vitality and curiosity — very bad in a would-be writer! To David it suggested a kind of weakness; a weakness that, if indulged, would make me boring. Susan believed that the reclusive type was, at heart, cold and selfish. I should change.
And I did try to change. For a time, I tried very hard to keep up. After all, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy going out, too. And of course I was excited to meet the many brilliant writers and artists that Susan knew.
But, when you’re in love, what is it that you want more than anything else in the world? Looking back, I can hardly remember times when David and I were alone. Once or twice I went and stayed with him for a night in the room he rented in Princeton, and I remember wishing dolefully that we could be there all the time.
Susan used to say how much easier it was for her to work in her room if she knew there were other people elsewhere in the apartment. But the only time I could work seemed to be when the apartment was empty.
For a while I tried getting up very early, before I had to go to my job, and locking myself in the former maid’s room that I used for a study. But as soon as Susan was awake she would knock and ask me to join her in the kitchen. She couldn’t bear to have her morning coffee or read the newspaper alone. In fact, fresh out of bed she seemed especially in need of an ear. She would talk nonstop, about whatever came into her head, and for some reason at that hour she was often roiling with indignation. Something about her life that was bothering her, or maybe something she saw on the front page of The Times, would set her off. David found this morning Susan difficult. He’d sit at the kitchen counter with his back turned, deep in the paper, face curtained by his long dark hair.
She had always hated being alone. For her, having to do certain things, such as eat a meal, without company was like a punishment. She would rather have gone out to dinner with someone she didn’t even much care for than eat in alone.
It wasn’t enough that she had spent the evening out with friends. When she came home, though it was late, though David and I might be already in bed, she would knock. “May I come in?” (The shyness in her voice through that closed door was heartbreaking.) David and I slept on a mattress on the floor. A small sofa stood near it. She would settle on the sofa, light a cigarette and begin telling us about her evening. I sometimes fell asleep while she was still talking.
But in fact, there had probably never been a time in her life when she feared being alone as much as she did then. Not only had she been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer; she was also slowly breaking up with the woman who’d been her companion for many years. She made no attempt to hide how devastating it would be for her if David were to move out. But she always insisted that it was not primarily neediness but rather love that made her want to keep her son with her forever. Theirs had never been an ordinary mother-son relationship, she said. In fact, she told me she had never really wanted David to think of her as his mother. “I’d rather he see me as — oh, I don’t know — his goofy big sister.” (“More like my brother” and “my best friend” was how she said she usually thought of him.) After all, she had been just 19 when he was born.
To David she became “Susan” while he was still a boy, and his father, the sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff, was “Philip”; David told me he could not imagine calling them Mom and Dad. And whenever Susan spoke to David about his father, whom she had divorced when David was 6, she referred to him as Philip as well. David rarely said “my mother” when speaking of her, and I would have felt strange saying “your mother.” It was sempre Susan.
There was nothing wrong with the three of us sharing a roof, she said. Indeed, in other cultures an arrangement like ours would have been common. And, tell her, please: What was so terrific about the nuclear family? Hadn’t she publicly pronounced it “a disaster”? (She also frequently railed against couples: no matter how interesting one or both people might be when you saw them separately, when you saw them together they were invariably boring.)
“Don’t be so conventional,” she said when I expressed doubts about the three of us always being together. “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” (The truth was, I had grown up in a very unconventional household, and ordinary bourgeois existence was, I confess, not only attractive but frankly exotic to me.)
What did it matter what other people said?
She was right: I should not have cared what other people said. But I did care. And what they said was shocking. People felt free to say things to me they would never have dared say to her. That there was feverish prurient interest swirling around 340 was something I already knew. Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked the absurd: Was it true? Had they had sex together? Sometimes, rather than being asked, I was told: They must have had sex together. My presence in the household seemed to intensify speculation, bringing the pot to a boil. (The fact of Susan’s bisexuality was, of course, highly pertinent.) What was going on up there?
I found it difficult that Susan wanted to talk so much about her and David’s history, and that that history was filled with so much conflict and resentment. She would tick off all the things she had done for David, her face flushed, her voice rising. With great bitterness she would bring up her own mother: a cold, narcissistic brute of a woman who Susan said had totally neglected her. Susan’s father had died when she was 5. Because she barely knew him, she had had to invent him. Naturally, she idealized him. She imagined him, though he had not been highly educated, endowed with a good mind and other qualities she could admire. She liked to think that, had he lived, he would have been a good father to her. Her husband, of course, had been a terrible father. But she believed that her son would make not just a good but a great father. This was something she said all the time — as she said all the time that she believed that she had been a great mother.
When she asked me once if I thought I’d make a good mother and I told the truth — I didn’t know — she was put off. “How can you say such a thing about yourself?” It was as if I’d just confessed to being a bad person. She said she had never had any doubts about herself in this regard. In fact, not having had more children was one of her biggest regrets. She spoke of the “criminal” feeling she experienced every time she saw a baby or a young child. “I want to kidnap them!” Even the sight of a baby animal could wrench her. She once saw a baby elephant up close, she said, and was so overwhelmed “I sobbed and sobbed.”
But she always spoke of her own childhood as a time of complete boredom, a misery she could not wait to be over. I have always had trouble understanding this (how could anyone’s childhood, even a less than happy one, be described as “a total waste”?), but she had wanted David’s childhood to be over as quickly as possible, too. (And as it turned out, he too would look back on his childhood as a miserable time, using the very phrase Susan often used in describing her own: a prison sentence.) It was as if somehow she didn’t really believe — or, perhaps, better to say, she saw no value — in childhood.
And for all her pride in her motherhood, and for all her laments about not having had more kids, she was not maternal. From the time she learned she was pregnant till the day she went into labor, she never saw a doctor. (“I didn’t know you were supposed to.”) And she told this story: “When I was writing the last pages of ‘The Benefactor,’ I didn’t eat or sleep or change clothes for days. At the very end, I couldn’t even stop to light my own cigarettes. I had David stand by and light them for me while I kept typing.” When she was writing the last pages of “The Benefactor” it was 1962, and David was 10.
She was not a mom. Every once in a while, noticing how dirty David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking how it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.
People who’d known Susan for years, who’d watched David grow up, said they didn’t believe she would ever let him go. It had nothing to do with cancer, they said; she would never let another person come first in her son’s life. She herself said that, because of the intense, complicated nature of their relationship, “David and I have always needed to have a third person around.” She didn’t like the word “girlfriend” much; she preferred “friend,” though she sometimes referred to me jovially as David’s consort. She referred to the three of us as the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive. I knew that wasn’t good. It didn’t help, either, that whatever fun thing David wanted to do she wanted to do with him: tennis lessons; motorcycle lessons. And although she kept telling me she would be happy to support not just David and me but any child of ours as well, she also said that for David to become a father anytime soon would ruin his life.
Why don’t we two just stick to oral sex? she suggested. “Then you won’t have to worry about birth control.” There was a fourth person at the lunch table the day Susan said this, and it was he who broke the silence. “Looks like Susan doesn’t want to be a grandmother.”
She took a deep breath before she spoke. “David tells me you’re thinking of moving out and that it’s because of me.” It was a year and a half later, and we were where it all began: in her room, I sitting on her desk chair, she on her bed. “I’m sorry,” she said, modulating her voice and hitting her consonants as she did when she wished to sound in control, “but I cannot take that responsibility.”
There really wasn’t much I could say to that.
She said, “My dear, you haven’t thought this through. You don’t go from being a couple that lives together to a couple that lives apart. You’re making a huge mistake.”
I’d have only myself to blame if we broke up.
We would have broken up anyway. We would have lasted longer, definitely. But in the end, things would not have worked out. Susan could have lived on the moon, and David and I would not have worked out. I’ve known this for a long time. What I don’t know is how we managed to stagger on for another year and a half after I moved out.
When I was packing, Susan told me I could take anything I wanted. I took two toys I had found in the depths of David’s closet: a Raggedy Andy doll and a small brown bear with one eye missing. (Years later, Susan would laugh off an interviewer’s comment regarding David’s complaints about his unhappy childhood, saying she remembered his room being full of toys, and claiming: “I still have his teddy bear.”)
In the years after David and I broke up, I had more contact with Susan than I had with him, though it never amounted to much. Once, not long after David had finally moved into a place of his own, she talked to me about being in therapy — a huge surprise, for I remembered how much disdain she once had for people who resorted to therapy, or, worse, took antidepressants. Among people she knew, the ones she seemed to respect most were the ones who, no matter how unhappy they were, had resisted therapy. But, in her early 50s, her own chronic irritability and discontent shaded into something darker. She found herself crawling back into bed soon after getting up, and her memory and concentration were at times so poor that, she said, “I really thought I might have had a mini stroke.” She consulted a neurologist who set her straight: no stroke, just your typical midlife clinical depression. She’d started seeing a psychiatrist; for a while she’d even taken Elavil. And now, psychotherapy had become one of her enthusiasms.
She talked at length about her sessions, in her open, confiding way, sharing what she’d told the therapist and what the therapist had told her — among other things, that one of Susan’s problems was that she was surrounded by narcissists whom she didn’t understand because she was not a narcissist herself. (“What about you?” she asked me earnestly. “Are you a narcissist?”)
The therapist also wondered: Why did you try to make a father out of your son?
At first when she heard this, Susan said, she was shocked. She didn’t know where the therapist could have come up with that! But then it hit her, she said: she had tried to do that. And we both started to cry.
Adapted from ‘‘Sempre Susan,’’ to be published in April by Atlas & Co.
November 5, 2013
Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott. Yale University Press.
In her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.
In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Jonathan Cott—whose 1978 interview with Sontag got chopped down by the magazine to one-third of its length—remembers that journal entry, and writes that “as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.” The idea of this persuasive fluency of speech as something constructed, something striven for and achieved, reveals the extent to which Sontag’s position as one of the most public of 20th-century public intellectuals was one she had always wanted to arrive at. As brilliant an essayist as she was, talking brilliantly was almost as significant a part of her job.
And so the Sontag colloquy shares certain key qualities with the Sontag essay—in particular the magnetic mixture of intellectual self-assurance and relaxed inclusivity. She was a virtuoso of the literary sit-down, working the form into an occasion for informal self-portrait. There’s no one topic that particularly dominates in this 138-page interview, but there are certain themes and preoccupations that assert themselves throughout: the ideal of personal autonomy, the complexities of love and friendship and sexuality, the historical constitution of ideas and behaviors we tend to think of as natural. The interview is from around the time of the publication of Illness as Metaphor, and so there’s a fair amount of talk about mortality, and the personal experience of being a cancer patient which informed that book. “We’re all,” she says at one point, “going to die—that’s a very difficult thing to take in—and we all experience this process. It feels as if there’s this person—in your head, mainly—trapped in this physiological stock that can only survive seventy- or eighty-plus years normally, in any kind of decent condition. It starts deteriorating at a certain point, and then for half of your life, if not more, you watch this material begin to fray. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re trapped inside it, and when it goes, you go.”
But it’s Sontag the reader who gets most airtime here—which is to say the critic rather than the novelist (although she would probably have argued the distinction could never hold up). There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.” And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything. She seems to have read all of Western literature, and to have learned from it everything that might be worth knowing.
This, of course, is exactly the impression you’d be well advised to start giving off if you wanted to make any kind of impact as a public intellectual. But with Sontag, you suspect that she really has read everything—and not in the Harold Bloom way, either, where encyclopedic erudition starts to look like a kind of petrification, where the critic manifests himself as the canon made flesh. Change is, for her, the end of reading; what she prizes in literature is its capacity to bring otherness into the self—the paradoxical way in which books take us outside the limits of ourselves while pushing those limits outward. “It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste,” she says. “Not in an unfriendly spirit with respect to the earlier work—but just because I need new blood and new nourishment and new inspiration. And because I like what I’m not, I like to try to learn what isn’t me or what I don’t know. I’m curious.”
And that’s one of the more inspiring things about Sontag: the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value. To be curious is, in the most vital sense, to be serious. There’s another wonderful moment, later on, when Cott mentions phoning her to ask about completing the interview, to which she replied that “We should do it soon because I may change too much.” Sontag sees nothing very unusual about this; it’s simply good practice to move on from being the person you’ve already established yourself as being:
I feel I’m changing all the time, and that’s something that’s hard to explain to people, because a writer is generally thought to be someone who’s either engaging in self-expression or else doing work to convince or change people along the lines of his or her views. And I don’t feel that either of those models makes much sense for me. I mean, I write partly in order to change myself so that once I write about something I don’t have to think about it anymore. And when I write, it actually is to get rid of those ideas. That may sound contemptuous of the public, because obviously when I’ve gotten rid of those ideas, I’ve passed them on as things that I believe— and I do believe them when I write them— but I don’t believe them after I’ve written them because I’ve moved on to some other view of things, and it’s become still more complicated ... or perhaps more simple.
Intense seriousness, of course, always has a tendency to verge on the comic. Sontag was the Platonic ideal of the intellectual, and so she could also come across as a not-too-subtle parody of the very idea of such a person. At one point, she tells Cott that the first book that really thrilled her was a biography of Marie Curie by Curie’s daughter Eve, which she recalls reading at age 6. The interviewer is impressed that a child of that age would go in for material of such relative heft. “I started reading when I was 3,” she expands, “and the first novel that affected me was Les Misérables—I cried and sobbed and wailed. When you’re a reading child, you just read the books that are around the house. When I was about 13, it was Mann and Joyce and Eliot and Kafka and Gide—mostly Europeans. I didn’t discover American literature until much later.” What to do with such a claim but both laugh at it and marvel at it? I thought of how my mother likes to remind me of my own alleged precocity by mentioning how she once came across me, age about 5, peering into a Jeffrey Archer blockbuster as though it contained the secret of life. By that age, Sontag would have been rolling up her sleeves and getting into Cervantes.
But this long and largely genial portrait of the (not always quite so genial) intellectual in middle age also amounts to a strong and deeply personal argument about what it means to be cultured—an argument for why a middle-aged intellectual might be something worth being in the first place. Part of what is so appealing about Sontag’s thinking is the absence of any heavy intellectual machinery being brought to bear on whatever topic she happens to be considering; there is rarely very much in the way of dogma to be contended with. But there is a kind of personal dialectic at work in her attitude toward herself, toward her writing and reading and thinking and speaking. “The most awful thing,” as she puts it in the book’s final lines, “would be to feel that I’d agree with the things I’ve already said and written—that is what would make me most uncomfortable because that would mean that I had stopped thinking.”